Firstly, please read the title of this blog sarcastically and here is why.
In years past, if someone had said to me that they were suffering from anxiety I would have rolled my eyes and told them to just ‘get over it’. I would have been one of those extremely helpful people who give all sorts of wonderful responses to anxiety, such as…
“What have you got to worry about?”
“You need to man up/deal with it/move on/grow a pair.”
“You’re such a panicker!”
“Ok… *changes subject or leaves room quickly* …”
“You don’t look like someone with anxiety!”
and my favourite…
“Just stop worrying!”
Can we just clarify now, in the history of the world has anyone stopped worrying when simply told ‘oh, just stop worrying’? Nope, never. So stop saying it people! Funnily enough, it is not that simple. We are not built with a worry switch that we can just turn on and off. We are human beings; emotions and reactions are often outside of our control and understanding.
Saying that, I do know where responses of that nature come from. I would have had exactly the same response before I first experienced anxiety and it’s not from a position of malice or a lack of concern. It really is from a position of inexperience and a lack of knowledge about what anxiety is, how it feels and where it comes from. We simply do not talk enough about it and when people do they are labelled as ‘weak’, or worse ‘attention-seeking’.
For me, my first experience of anxiety was when I was 23. My life has always been pretty hectic, I take on a lot and I don’t regret it because life is for living. Still, when it affects your ability to function as a normal human being, you soon discover that something has to change.
I was in my first year of a full-time bachelor’s degree, had just moved to a new town with my boyfriend and two dogs, had just become a landlord for the first time, was working 16 hours a week in a local cafe, volunteered one day a week for the local wildlife charity and worked two days a week as an administrator. Reading that back now, I can see why I was perhaps feeling a little stressed but when responsibilities and duties trickle into your life you don’t necessarily see them building up until it is too late. Besides, I had never experienced anxiety up to this point, I thought everyone else was a bunch of cry-babies and I was invincible. Anxiety decided to teach me this wasn’t the case.
Looking back, the symptoms had been building for sometime but I can only recognise them now from a position of experience of anxiety and knowledge of how anxiety presents itself. At the time I had no idea what was happening to me until it was too late.
The first symptom weirdly was clumsiness (and I am dyspraxic, so this was a whole new level of clumsiness). I would knock things over, drop my keys all the time, bump into furniture and regularly trip over my own feet. Everyone would joke that I was pregnant (apparently clumsiness = up the duff, who knew?!). It was constant. The worse thing was not the clumsiness itself but my reactions to whatever I had done. One evening I remember carrying a bowl from the kitchen to the dining room and dropping it on the floor. Rather than doing what any rational adult would do, probably sworn a few times, then cleaned it up; I sat on the floor and cried and cried and cried. Alarm bells, right.
The crying was another major symptom. I’m not a crier. I never have been. My colleagues have never seen me cry, my best of friends have only ever seen me cry once (London 7/7 bombings) and my family could probably count on one hand how many times they’ve seen me cry in my adult life. Suddenly however I was holding back tears at work simply because I felt a bit down or because I was running a bit late. At home I was crying in the shower for no real reason but it felt good just to let it out and for no one to see. My boyfriend at the time was the only one who saw most of my crying. When he asked if I was ok I would just cry until I couldn’t cry any more. It was truly awful.
It was also exhausting. And that was the another symptom of my anxiety. I would sleep and never feel refreshed. I didn’t want to get out of bed in the morning and as soon as I got home from work I just wanted to go straight back to bed again. I would easily sleep 12-14 hours at the weekend and still not feel properly replenished when I woke up. I suppose having adrenalin running round your body, holding back tears, getting frustrated over everything and chasing your tail all day, every day was wearing me out (funny that).
I honestly had no idea how much my yet-to-be-diagnosed anxiety had eaten into my life, my personality and who I was a person. It wasn’t until I had been suffering from a chest pain for several weeks that my path towards identifying my anxiety started. The chest pain felt like a combination of heart burn and a tight constriction in my rib cage. It left me feeling sick and not wanting to eat. It happened several times throughout the day and would often happen most at night when I got home. I started to get really worried about it. At the same time it looked like one of my bones in the left hand side of my rib cage had ‘raised’. By this time I was really starting to worry, so I booked an appointment with my doctor fearing some sort of heart condition (another thing to worry about, I thought!).
I walked into the examination room and described the pains to my doctor. She took my blood pressure, asked a couple of questions about my lifestyle and nonchalantly told me that the chest pains that I was having were in fact panic attacks and the raised rib cage was a muscle in my chest that I was damaging from the rapid breathing during my panic attacks. My anxiety was starting to physically damage my body. The doctor signed me off work for a week with ‘stress-induced anxiety’. When she told me, I cried, my very first cry in front of a stranger and actually my last! It was strange, it wasn’t the sick note with ‘anxiety’ written on, or the chest pains, or the doctor diagnosing me; it was the act of crying in front of a stranger that shocked me into realising that something wasn’t right. That was the moment I truly realised that I was not as in control of everything as I had imagined, that maybe I was over working myself and stressing myself out to the point of exhaustion. I got straight into my car, parked down the street where my grandparents lived and cried down the phone to my partner. I still wasn’t ready to tell anyone but him about my situation but the act of being physically near my family was reassurance enough. I then had to tell my boss through necessity rather than wanting to and I had a week to sit at home and ‘recover’ I suppose.
Now when I think about panic attacks, I imagine brown paper bags, flapping arms and maybe some screaming or shouting. Not a tight chest and slight nausea. But this is a misconception I would immediately like to dispel. Panic attacks come in all shapes and sizes, I am having one right now and no one but me knows it. I would say I have had about five already today and I could have another ten or more before the day is out (yep, the b##tard is back but more on that another time). Sometimes panic attacks are triggered; you might have a fear of being late to work, a worry about an upcoming dentist appointment or a daunting interview the next day. The other types of panic attacks are much worse. They are the attacks that you cannot associate with anything, this for me happens when my anxiety is at its peak. You will have a panic attack for no apparent reason, it comes completely out of the blue and there is nothing that you can tell yourself to calm you down because you don’t know what caused it in the first place. They are hell.
Another misconception that I personally had, was that ‘I am not the sort of person to have anxiety’. I would generally be described as ‘organised’, the one who ‘has it all under control’, certainly not someone who can’t cope with a bit of stress. Anxiety can happen to anyone and everyone, whether they have a nervous disposition or a multi-billion corporation. I personally have neither. Anyone who experiences stress (so everyone) is susceptible to anxiety. Anxiety is just the reaction to the stress. So sometimes something horrendous will happen to me, i.e. in August when I crashed my car; I walked away, laughed about it, swore LOTS about it, had a big drink, got on with my day, then moved on. At that time I didn’t have any anxious feelings. Now however, at a time when my anxiety is present, I can do something as simple as bump into my kitchen cabinet and my reaction could be to swear, kick the cabinet, scream at it and probably have a cry. It seems completely over the top but that is what anxiety does to you. It makes every little inconvenience seem like the world is out to get you and you can’t handle another negative occurrence no matter how insignificant. It sucks but the thing about anxiety is there are ways to control it and for me at least it is not a life-sentence. Heck, I haven’t experienced any anxiety in the last 3 years! And the only reason it is back in my life now is because I have a lot on my plate (clearly didn’t learn from the last time).
Even when we do look on the bright side of life however, it is important to note that anxiety is not something people just ‘get over’ and the comments and misconceptions that I mentioned above really do not help anyone. The best advice I can give to anyone experiencing anxiety, living with someone with it or trying to empathise with someone suffering from it; is to educate yourselves. Learn about what it is, how it feels, what triggers there are, what symptoms there are and what you can do to help. And never, ever live in denial – tell people how you feel and listen to those sharing their stories.